The case for pessimism: out of date?

The great advantage of a blog like this from my point of view is that it provides me with an archive of things I have written and said over the years that don’t end up on my cv. And so this is a post written primarily for my own benefit, linking to an article I wrote for the Irish Mail on Sunday in the week after the UK triggered Article 50 (there wasn’t an online version available at the time).

I was pretty pessimistic back in April — perhaps overly so. Since I was focusing on the British side, how could I not have been?  On the other hand, if I were writing the piece today I would place less stress on the economics, and more on the politics of the Border. That greatly limits the range of acceptable outcomes — but who is to say that the Irish government won’t succeed in its efforts? The recent EU paper on the subject is gratifyingly hardline in its approach to the issue: the language relating to avoiding “a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure” is exactly what we would have wanted, and has probably not been sufficiently commented-upon in Britain, ruling out as it does the Canada-US and Norway-Sweden options that some Brexiteers seem so keen on.

Since time is running out, and bespoke transitional arrangements are even less obtainable than they were a year ago, the most plausible and realistic way for the UK to avoid a cliff-edge would seem to be a transition involving the status quo, more or less.* That would kick the border issue into touch for a couple more years: and once we get to that stage, who knows what might eventually happen?

*Although I do still think that the cliff is a possibility, for the reasons stated in that column or here (sorry, more self-archiving).

Could Ireland credibly threaten to veto an EU-UK trade deal?

For years now, Ireland and the UK have been the best of friends. Very sadly, Brexit is placing the relationship under strain. The positions of the two governments on the Irish border could not be further apart. Ireland is very clear: no trade deal that involves a physical border is acceptable. That obviously implies that the United Kingdom should seek to remain within the European Economic Area, and form a new customs union with the EU.  This would replicate its existing trade ties with the bloc, while respecting the vote to leave the EU, and avoid the need for a border within Ireland. The United Kingdom, on its part, is adamant that it must leave the customs union in order to strike separate trade deals with the United States and other countries overseas.  To be sure, it pays lip service to the importance of avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but this appears to be nothing more than a cynical manoeuvre. On the one hand, the magical unrealist tendency within the British government appears to think that by talking up the border issue, they can undermine the EU customs union, which has been defined by a common external tariff barrier since the 1950s. This would allow the UK to have its cake and eat it. On the other hand, the lip service will, they hope, allow the UK to place the blame for the consequences of its own decisions on Ireland and the rest of the EU.

What, if anything, can Ireland do?  As has been noted recently, the country is not powerless. While the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU will be decided by qualified majority vote, Ireland does have a potential veto in at least two possibly relevant circumstances. First, it would have a veto should the UK seek to extend the two-year deadline for exit following its Article 50 notification.  Second, and probably more to the point, if as seems likely the UK ultimately seeks an ambitious, “mixed” trade deal with the EU that includes provisions on, for example, investment, Ireland will have a veto on that as well.

The UK therefore has the power to give Ireland something that we want: the maintenance of a border-free Ireland. There are encouraging signs that some in Britain may now be moving in that direction, but they are not currently the ones driving British policy. And down the line, Ireland will have the power to deny the UK something that it wants: a trade deal with the EU that goes beyond tariff-free trade in goods, and includes the kinds of provisions on portfolio investment that would be of interest to the City. The question therefore is: can Ireland credibly threaten to use this power in an attempt to prevent the reimposition of a border on our island? Continue reading “Could Ireland credibly threaten to veto an EU-UK trade deal?”

Using Ireland

I see that the government is changing its tone on Brexit and the border, and I welcome this whole-heartedly.

Life is too short to try to figure out what goes on inside the average Brexiteer’s head, but here is my best shot, as it relates to the Irish border.

Economics is all about choices, and consequently I have very little time for people who don’t realise that if, say, you eat a cake, you no longer have it. But as we know, the Brexiteers have refused to admit that their country does, in fact, have real and important choices to make.

In particular, if they want to avoid costly customs inspections, they need to remain members of the customs union. And if they want to avoid all the other border formalities and barriers to trade that existed before 1992, they have to remain members of the Single Market. If they exit both the customs union and the Single Market, this will inevitably reintroduce frictions of various sorts making trade with the EU more costly than at present, and this will remain true even after a free trade agreement is negotiated. For the whole point of the customs union and Single Market was to do away with those frictions.

So they have a choice, and it seems as though they are choosing to make trade more costly between the UK and the rest of the EU. That will have a variety of negative consequences for the UK economy. But to date, the UK government has been incapable of realising or at least admitting publicly that that is the choice they have made, since they are denying that you can’t both have your cake (leave the customs union and Single Market) and eat it (preserve frictionless trade with the EU). Perhaps they sincerely believe this — a scary thought. Or perhaps they just don’t want to admit it publicly, and given the many lies told during the Brexit campaign, you can understand why.

And this is where they hope that Ireland can help them. They tell us, hand on heart, that of course they want to avoid a Border, but what they really want is to leave the Single Market and customs union, and preserve frictionless trade with the entire EU. Which is, as said, impossible. But some of them apparently think that by shedding crocodile tears about the Irish border, they can achieve the impossible — by inducing the EU to turn a blind eye to smuggling across the border, thus undermining the EU customs regime and our consumer, environmental, and other safety standards. And of course, once the nonsense that technology can “solve” all border problems has been accepted in the Irish context, they hope that this will serve as a precedent for trade with the rest of the EU. Indeed, I have seen that argument made quite explicitly in the UK press, but since it’s Sunday I’m not going to spend an hour digging out the relevant quote.

But all that technology can do is lower (not eliminate) the Brexit-induced costs of legitimate UK-EU trade. It can’t stop illegitimate trade, which is why you really need border controls. And so we occasionally read British politicians and commentators tell us that the solution is of course going to involve a “light touch” approach towards smuggling, in effect “turning a blind eye” to it. Such suggestions are not only intellectually unserious, and unethical –since they amount to arguing that we should give a licence to organised crime to print money — but astonishingly politically naive. The UK is dealing with 27 other sovereign, democratic nations who aren’t going to allow their customs regime and regulatory standards be undermined, and their legal order upended, just to preserve the Brexiteers from the embarrassment that awaits them once the UK public figures out that cake, once eaten, is gone.

And so, as I say, I welcome the new tone coming from Merrion Street and Iveagh House. My best guess is that the hardline Brexiteers have never been interested in a special deal for Ireland per se, since they evidently don’t give a toss about the island, but that they have been hoping that Ireland can serve as the key unlocking a very, very special deal for the UK.

A deal so special that it is, in fact, impossible.

And I don’t think our country should let itself be used as the Brexiteers’ useful idiot.